The Milwaukee Brewers are entering uncharted territory for the David Stearns regime this winter. Stearns and his manager Craig Counsell have both spoken about not setting limits on what a team may be able to do in a given season, and that philosophy helped guide the team to a surprising 86-win campaign and near playoff berth in 2017 with the help of in-season acquisitions Anthony Swarzak and Neil Walker. Though most expected the Brewers to slog through another “rebuilding year” last season, the franchise will enter 2018 with the rebuild firmly in the rearview mirror and heightened expectations from both the fan base and ownership group.
Stearns has already spoken this offseason about how the way the core group of players gelled and succeeded together allows the org to “accelerate the timeline” of competing. The GM has indicated that the focus this offseason will be improving the Major League club, whereas building the farm system was the main focus of Stearns’s first two winters at the helm. This is an exciting time to be a Brewers’ fan, as the team has resources aplenty in terms of both payroll space and prospect capital to work with while searching for upgrades.
Starting pitching depth is said to be the main point of emphasis for the Brewers this winter, and it’s easy to see why. With Jimmy Nelson set to miss significant time in 2018 after shoulder surgery (and his return to 2017 form in question), Chase Anderson and Zach Davies represent the only proven starters on hand. The team needs innings, and Brewers have already been linked to names like Jake Arrieta and Lance Lynn in the early going this winter. Stearns has been quick to downplay those rumors, as he is with just about any transaction his team is rumored to be considering, but he has acknowledged that he and his team have had exploratory free agent and trade discussions. He has also discussed how as a small market team, it is difficult for the Brewers to build their team through free agency and make significant commitments to players over the age of 30. The goal, once again, is to “acquire, develop, and retain young talent.”
With that in mind, it may not be surprising then to see the Brewers turn to the trade market in search of addition arms to fortify their pitching staff for 2018. While Dan Straily and Jake Odorizzi are two players who figure to be available that could be of interest, there have also been rumblings about more premium arms like 29 year old Chris Archer and 26 year old Marcus Stroman potentially being available in the right deal. Acquiring one of those frontline caliber starters will require giving up quite a nifty package of players, but the Brewers have the prospects to entice other organizations and the depth in their farm system such that brokering a deal for a multiyear asset like Archer or Stroman won’t “mortgage the future.”
If Stearns and company do decide to turn their attention towards the trade market, there are a couple of prospects within the system that it may be wise to try and build a deal around. The first is Monte Harrison. Harrison was finally able to stay healthy for a full season for the first time in his career and posted a breakout year across the Class A and Class-A Advanced levels – a .306 TAv, 21 home runs, and 27 steals in 513 plate appearances between the two stops. Evaluators have been drooling over the tools he was finally able to display, and he garnered praise as a true “five-tool talent” with a 70 OFP – future All-Star caliber center fielder in BP’s recent top prospects update for the Brewers.
Though Harrison may very well have a bright future ahead of him, he’s has yet to reach the AA level and is a few years away from making an impact at the Major League level. There are also questions that could limit his ceiling, namely the rawness of his baseball skills and the utility of his hit tool. Reports indicate that his swing-and-miss tendencies were trending in the right direction by season’s end, but he whiffed 139 times in 122 games in 2017, a rate of more than 27 percent of his plate appearances. Without further adjustments, that rate figures to only increase as Harrison continues to climb the ladder to face (and potentially be exploited by) more advanced pitching. There’s also the obvious questions about his durability, as well, after he missed significant chunks of time in 2015 and 2016.
The other player is right-hander Corbin Burnes. The former 4th-rounder won Milwaukee’s minor league pitcher of the year after tossing 145.2 innings with an astonishing 1.67 ERA in 2017, compiling 140 strikeouts against just 36 walks between Class-A Advanced and Double-A this past season. His DRA- at the lower level was 40 and it was 56 after his promotion, further exhibiting the dominance that he displayed over his minor league competition in 2017.
Burnes came in at #4 on Milwaukee’s updated top prospect list and certainly has an enticing profile. Namely, the righty has the ideal build (6’3″, 205 lbs) and advanced command of four solid pitches. The stuff doesn’t quite match up with the dominating results he posted in 2017, though. Corbin Burnes doesn’t appear to be the “future ace” that fans are always pining for. His changeup needs some work to reach an average grade and his curveball is inconsistent will likely settle in as a below-average offering. At present he lacks a true plus offering, which will make it difficult for him to consistently miss bats at the big league level. Craig Goldstein noted that without some further growth, the ultimate package is probably “an inconsistent back-end starter, or a candidate to shift to the bullpen and focus on his heater and best secondary.”
The Brewers have a plethora of young, advanced outfield depth (Domingo Santana, Keon Broxton, Lewis Brinson, Brett Phillips, Troy Stokes) as well as right-handed pitchers (Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta, Luis Ortiz, Adrian Houser, Cody Ponce, Jon Perrin, Aaron Wilkerson), which helps make the idea of a trade more palatable. Monte Harrison and Corbin Burnes both enjoyed excellent performances in 2017 and scouts believe that they may eventually be destined for big things in the MLB. But there are reasons to be wary of each player’s continued development, and with Milwaukee shifting the focus towards winning at the big league level, now may be the ideal time to sell high on Harrison and Burnes if the right deal comes along and let another franchise worry about developing them. Certainly, if the Brewers are planning on playing that segment of the market it’s worth at least exploring if a package for an Archer or Stroman could be built around those two players rather than two would-be MLB contributors in 2018 like, say, Lewis Brinson and Brandon Woodruff.